Talks with Kevin Keller 2020


Kevin Keller

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The Front Porch of Heaven


Ice Worlds


Santiago's Dream

















The Front Porch of Heaven:
Ambient Visions Talks with....Kevin Keller
©2020 Ambient Visions

AV:  I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about your last release pre-coronavirus that came out in 2019 so maybe you can tell me about Ice Worlds, about the music and what it represented to the body of your work as a composer.

KK:  “Ice Worlds” grew out of a newfound fascination that I have with analog synthesis and programming. Even though I have a background in analog synthesizer programming (going all the way back to my college days in 80’s), almost all of my commercially released music has been digitally rendered. I’ve been using a lot of VSTs lately, as well as samplers and digital synths. For some reason, at the end of 2017 I became interested in analog synthesis again. I think it had a lot to do with deadmau5, and specifically his album “(while 1<2)”. That album had directly influenced a lot of my creative decisions on “La Strada”, especially in terms of rhythm programming. Then deadmau5 released a series of videos through, a few of which demonstrated his analog gear. At that point, I was hooked. 

Before long, I was deeply immersed in synth programming, using my Juno-106, as well as a plug-in called Serum (which is based on classic waveform synthesis). I also got my hands on an ARP-2600 and a Moog Modular (both on loan). All of these new sounds that I was creating led to the creation of the opening track on the album “Ice World 1”. And then the whole project blossomed from there. “Ice Worlds” was a huge step for me as a composer, because not only did it bring analog synthesis back to foreground, it also re-introduced sequencing and drum programming. 

AV:  How does the title Ice Worlds tie in to the compositions and was there a flow to the music & a message that you wanted to communicate to your listeners with the music that you presented on this album?

KK:  When I was first thinking about starting a new project, I had this idea to choose an existing nature documentary, and then create a new score for it. I ended up choosing the BBC series “Planet Earth”, and specifically the episode titled “Ice Worlds” (Episode 6). I was able to download the complete episode to my hard drive, and then began creating my own music for different sections of the film. This was only the jumping off point for the album that followed, however. Only the first 2 tracks on the album are directly tied to particular scenes.  The rest of the album was spontaneously composed around the general theme of ice and snow, but from a retro sci-fi-fi standpoint. That was just because of those first 2 tracks, and the way that they sounded to me. 

I ended up creating this whole narrative in my mind about a lone astronaut searching the galaxy for ice planets that Earth could use for their dwindling water supply.


Each track became a musical souvenir from each of these 8 worlds. It was a lot of fun making this music, and I decided that nothing was sacred or precious about it. If I wanted to put in the sound of a vacuum cleaner, or a typewriter, or a Japanese astronaut’s voice, then it would go in there. I also included homages to the early pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Vangelis. It ended up being a very cohesive album, and was a lot of fun. 

AV:  When you are in the midst of composing music for a project like Ice Worlds do you ever think about it in terms of your previous compositions and whether or not you are personally breaking new ground in your musical evolution as a composer? Do you consciously or unconsciously push yourself to explore the boundaries of what you do as a composer & find new ways to express yourself musically?

KK:  That’s a great question! Yes, I was definitely aware of the way
“Ice Worlds” was breaking new ground for me, and I wondered how it might be received, since it was so different from my other “ambient chamber music” releases. But I never try and second guess what other people might think of my music. I just create for myself initially, and I consciously push myself to go beyond any perceived boundaries. This is what keeps me going. I love thinking up new ways to approach my work, and creating artistic challenges for myself. I never want to feel completely comfortable when I’m creating a new album in the studio. I like to feel like I’m taking creative risks, and that I don’t know for sure how it will come out, or how I will get there. I approach every new album as a masterclass in some new technique, or some new approach. 

AV:  Well in March of this year the world was thrown off its axis and things changed drastically for people all around the world.

I had tickets to see Steve Roach in NYC in March just before the world as we know it ended. I’ve been sheltered in place since mid-March and have become somewhat of a hermit from then until present day. Tell me about how this pandemic has affected you personally & as a musician andcomposer.

KK:  Yeah. I also had tickets to that Steve Roach show in NYC. I was really bummed that the show was canceled, because I haven’t seen Steve since 2000 when we did our show together in San Francisco. 

Yes, it seemed like the whole world changed on March 13. One day, I was regularly going downtown and seeing friends, and the next, I was holed up in my apartment with my wife as the only person that I saw regularly. She was able to set up her computer to work from home (she’s an architect), and while nothing really changed for me on the surface (since I always work from home), there were some big changes in terms of how I felt about everything. I became even more focused on my music (since I was nearing completion of my new album at the time). I bought more equipment for my studio (a Moog Grandmother, and a Fender Telecaster with a Bugera tube amp), and set up a whole new “live rig” where I can spontaneously create music on the fly.  Not only did I get my new album done ahead of schedule, but I ended up creating the foundation for a whole other album that I’m working on now. Being in quarantine for so many months was a very good thing for my creativity, and I also came to terms with a lot of thoughts about my life and my career that had been holding me back. I feel more productive and more confident than at any time in the past.

AV:  How have the restrictions and sheltering in place for covid19 changed your routine as a musician & a composer?

KK:  I’ve become more disciplined, that’s for sure. In the past, I would go days between sessions, and I had really mastered the art of procrastination. I would spend a lot of time outside thinking about music, but not always a lot of time actually making music. This has changed for me in the past 6 months. Now, I find myself working almost every day, and getting a lot more accomplished. This has also helped me with creative decisions, and knowing sooner when an idea needs more work, or if it’s just not working at all.

AV:  Has the solitude of being cut off from the face to face world altered the way you compose music or dampened the desire to compose music at all? I’m thinking more along the lines of life was so busy before the pandemic that there was little time to do what you wanted to do but now that you’ve had nothing but time were you actually able to translate that into more compositions & more time spent with your music?

KK:  I’m already a pretty solitary person, so the “extra” solitude has been very enjoyable for me. Of course, I do miss seeing my close friends, and we’ve stayed in touch with phone calls and video chats. I’ve even started seeing people in person, going on socially distanced walks through the woods or the park. But in the end, I’ve really enjoyed the extra space and time, and it’s had a very positive effect on my music.

AV:  When did you first start work on The Front Porch of Heaven? I’m curious about titles of albums and this one definitely seems like one to ask about. What does the title signify to you as the composer and does the album title come first or does it come to you somewhere during the writing and recording of the album?

KK:  The title always comes first for me. Even if I’ve already started writing the music, it’s not until I’ve come up with the album title that things really start gaining momentum. And often, I even come up with track titles ahead of time.

This was the case with “The Front Porch of Heaven”. Not only did I have the album title, I also had proposed titles for the different sections (though a few of them changed as I went along).

This album first popped into existence in the spring of 2019, around the time that I found out (much to my surprise) that I needed to have coronary artery bypass surgery. Being told that my heart was going to be stopped for the operation was an oddly inspiring experience for me. After all, it’s a pretty significant moment in one’s life to have your heart clamped OFF for more than an hour! I didn’t have a lot of time to mentally prepare for the surgery, so I decided to just put my faith in the medical team, and think about where I might “go” during the surgery. I wondered if I’d have a Near Death Experience, or if I’d be at all conscious of the fact that my heart was stopped and that I was on a ventilator. All of these thoughts led to the idea of a resting place, somewhere on “the other side” where I could hang out for a while and then return to my life. This is where the image of the front porch came from.

I slightly borrowed that title from choreographer Ulysses Dove, who had created a dance piece in the early 90’s titled “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven”. I had always loved that title, and the imagery that it conjured up, so I used part of it for this album project. Once I was home from the hospital and recovered from surgery, I started making music inspired by the whole experience. I didn’t have an NDE, and I don’t think I was consciously aware that my heart was off. But I have such a vivid imagination that I just ran with these ideas and wrote music that reflected on my life as a whole, and what “could” have happened.

AV:  Since this album is coming out on September 18, 2020, I’ll assume that at least some of it was recorded and mixed during the time of covid19 and the lockdowns. Did the music change during this time period from what you had originally envisioned it? In other words, did the events happening around the world alter the compositions or your feelings towards them as you progressed towards completing the album?

KK:  That’s really interesting. I don’t know if the pandemic and the quarantine had any direct influence on the music, but the last couple pieces of the album definitely came out differently than I envisioned. There was definitely some indirect influence, since as I mentioned, I had bought some new gear, including a new Fender guitar. This led to my including an electric guitar solo on “The Sky Below”, which is something I never thought I’d hear in my own music. Even though guitar was my first instrument, I had never thought of it as an instrument to compose my own music with. That all changed with this track. I think that also calls back to “Ice Worlds” and my “nothing is sacred” idea.

The final track on the album, “Solana”, also came out differently, and I think that this was helped along by my being more focused and more disciplined. In the past, I might have given up on that track since it wasn’t going well to start. But instead of giving up, I set aside a whole morning to really sit with the emotions that I wanted to express, and after about an hour at the piano, I stumbled upon the melody and chord progression that you hear.

Then the track just took off, and it was done before I knew it. So, I guess in retrospect that, yes, the lockdown did have a direct influence on the compositions and my feeling towards them.

AV:  Tell me about the music on The Front Porch of Heaven and what kind of emotions were you hoping to evoke in listeners who pick up the album.

KK:  This whole album was inspired by some of the most cherished memories from my life, and I hope that this comes through in the music. In the days leading up to my surgery, I thought back about the handful of moments in my life when I felt a deep sense of “knowing” - like the time that I stood in a grove of trees as the afternoon sun streamed down through the branches, or the time that I ran up a hill to meet a flock of swifts circling the hilltop. I wanted to express a sense of reverence and gratitude in the music. Even though the music is expressing something very specific to me, my hope is that it brings up something personal for you, the listener.

I’m always telling a story of some kind with my albums, even though it may not be a strict narrative. Most of the time, it’s more about a series of emotions, and the journey from one to the other. My hope is that the listener immerses themselves in the music for 38 minutes, and comes out on the other side feeling like they’ve had a new experience.

AV:  Has anyone been working with you on this new album? Have you worked out a system of collaborating with someone over the Internet and how has that changed the fundamental ways that you would ordinarily create music and prepare it to be released?

KK:  My last couple albums have been solo affairs - but I do have a mastering engineer that I’ve worked with on everything. His name is Chris Frasco, and he’s based in Nashville, so everything is done via file sharing and email.  We have a basic system where I upload the tracks to him, and he will listen to them with a critical ear, and he’ll let me know if he hears anything that can be improved in the mix before he masters the track. This is a fairly unique relationship to have with a mastering engineer. I trust his ears, and he’s always right when he hears something that’s “off”. There are always a couple tracks on an album that will change, sometimes pretty significantly, before they’re mastered. For example, “Solana” originally had a more pronounced rhythm track, but once I heard the test master, I realized that it wasn’t working and remixed the entire track in order to bring up the strings more and to delete that rhythm track.

AV:  Do you see the streaming of concerts or new music as a way of compensating for the lack of being able to actually perform live in face to face venues? Do you find streaming live music to those who want to hear your music a satisfying way of performing your compositions for an audience?

KK:  Absolutely! And I’m so glad that you’ve asked this question, because it leads into the project that I’m now working on.

Since it looks like it’s going to be a while before we can have large gatherings and concerts, I’m going to film a complete live concert here in NYC (possibly without an audience) and then offer that concert as a streamed event. This is going to be a huge project, and I’m really excited about it. I’m working with a producer, a director, a lighting designer, and a string quartet, and we’ll be putting the whole thing together in Spring 2021. We’ve got the venue chosen, but we’re waiting for it to reopen before we finalize our plans. The set list will feature music from my entire 26-year career, and we’ll have a 12-camera crew to film the whole thing. If it’s safe at the time, we’ll bring in an audience of no more than 100 people. Right now, I’m just focusing on the music and the set list. The finished product is planned for release on streaming and DVD, hopefully in Fall 2021.

AV:  Do you think that concerts & gatherings have been fundamentally altered by our battles with a pandemic or do you think that this will all blow over as soon as the virus is brought under control with a vaccine?

KK:  I don’t think that the pandemic will fundamentally alter concerts in the long run. Once we have a treatment and a vaccine, and the infection rate is below 0.01, things will bounce back to normal.

AV:  When people start listening to The Front Porch of Heaven later this month what is it that you’d like for them to take away from your music?

KK:  The best way to listen is with a really good stereo system, while sitting in a comfortable chair, free from distractions. Or a really good pair of headphones. Either way, put the album on, close your eyes, and really immerse yourself in the journey. This music is very visual and very emotional, and it has the power to take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Just be open to the new experience you’re about to have.

AV:  Thanks for taking the time to speak to me about your music in general and your new release The Front Porch of Heaven coming out on the 18th. I do hope that we will begin to see a slow return to a semi normal existence over the next few months but I'm ready to stay put until next year if need be. Stay safe Kevin and keep on making music. With all the isolation I'm sure we'll see more new material coming up real soon. Take care.